Trading Julio Jones leaves a massive void in the Falcons’ receiving core, and his production has to go somewhere. Calvin Ridley will shoulder much of the load; he’s already proven capable after finishing tied for fifth in the league in receiving yards and scoring nine touchdowns in just 15 games, resulting in a second-team All-Pro nomination a year ago when Jones missed seven games.
Russell Gage has also shown he’s ready to handle more responsibility. The former LSU Tiger set career highs in every major receiving category — 109 targets, 72 receptions, 786 yards, and four touchdowns.
Obviously, receiving production from the tight ends will be key to picking up the slack as well. Hayden Hurst had a career year in 2020, catching 56 passes for 571 yards and six touchdowns, and I’ve already predicted another breakout season for the fourth-year man out of South Carolina. It’s difficult to speak on who will replace the production of Julio Jones without mentioning Kyle Pitts because he will be a force to be reckoned with.
The highest tight end drafted in league history is unlike any before him, and Arthur Smith will create many sleepless nights for defensive coordinators that are game planning to stop Pitts in this offense. Last year in Tennessee, Smith deployed 12 personnel — one running back, two tight ends, and two wide receivers — 35% of the time, a league-leading 373 snaps. Furthermore, Smith ran 9% of the Titans’ offensive plays out of 13 personnel — one running back, three tight ends, one receiver — tied for the second-most snaps (100).
This basically means that Ridley, Gage, Pitts, and Hurst will garner most of the targets that would’ve gone to Jones. With him, this receiving core was elite, and without Jones, it is average — not poor. Ridley is an elite wideout; Gage is a capable WR2, and Tajae Sharpe is an underrated third option that is familiar with Atlanta’s new head coach. Originally a fifth-round pick of the Titans in 2016, Sharpe had an auspicious rookie season, catching 41 passes for 522 yards, but he hasn’t quite lived up to that ascension. However, his second-best season statistically came under Smith, which occurred in 2019 — totaling 25 catches for 329 yards and four touchdowns.
The Falcons will mainly be using two tight end and two wide receiver sets given their personnel and Smith’s offensive philosophy, but Sharpe is fully capable of shouldering the load of a WR3. He was a backup for all three wide receiver spots in Tennessee, which means he knows the offense. Sharpe was also effective on third down and in the red zone at 6-foot-2, 194 pounds. He’s a physical receiver, something that bodes well in this offense. Sharpe will be an underrated acquisition after being cut by the Chiefs earlier this offseason.
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